Forgiveness Is A Key Change Leadership Skill

In Judaism, this time of year is an intentional end of a cycle. In this period, we reflect on the year that has passed (and perhaps also the many years before it) and we specifically shine a spotlight on the people we have been to ourselves and to others. We evaluate the grudges we may be holding and identify the ways that we may have ignited grudges in others. And then, we take action to resolve them.

These actions include acknowledging and asking for forgiveness for the ways that we may have harmed others, but also granting forgiveness to those whose harms continue to affect us emotionally (if not otherwise). Almost every religion weighs in on forgiveness—some cyclically, and others as a general, on-going practice. Forgiveness is also a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy.

Why Forgiveness Matters

That forgiveness appears in so many religious and philosophical doctrines is no coincidence. In any community, harboring the pain that comes from being harmed by another’s behavior can be deeply damaging. It not only erodes relationships, it also undermines a person’s sense of peace and access to happiness. Forgiveness creates an opportunity to let go of the intangible things that aren’t serving a person, and it can be an incredibly powerful process.

When it comes to relationships at work, where we are so often running at warp speed, just trying to keep head above water to get everything on our infinite to do lists done, opportunities to harm someone else abound. We can fail to communicate effectively, fail to exercise empathy, fail to be kind, and fail to give productive feedback. And we can fail to notice that we have done any of those things. Yet, at work especially, we almost never consider forgiveness to be a core practice in our effectiveness as coworkers or as leaders.

Forgiveness Is One of Your Most Powerful Tools

Negative feelings toward your coworkers can take up a great deal of mental and emotional real estate, and they can get in the way of working effectively together. If you’re holding onto them, they may be the root of dysfunction in your relationship, and reverberate across your team and your entire organization.

The goal of forgiveness is to let go of the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that come with feeling violated, including those that come with feeling regret over having violated someone else. Often we hold onto regret when we unintentionally harm someone, or when we realize what we have done. And we hold onto pain associated with being violated by constantly replaying the transgression in our mind. Especially when these cycles have been ongoing for some period of time, they become habits that are hard to break. As such, forgiveness is not a single act. It is also an ongoing practice; a habit unto itself.

The Critical Acts of Forgiveness

Act #1: Reflection

Forgiveness, by definition, requires intentional reflection. It is impossible to forgive or seek forgiveness without first having clarity about what must be forgiven and why. The Stoics (and Ben Franklin, among others) knew this and adopted the practice of daily journaling that included some variation of the question: What good have I done today? — and it’s inverse: What have I done today that must be repaired or improved? Even in the absence of a daily practice, we all carry a subconscious list of our own transgressions and those others have committed against us. Just taking a moment to name them is enough to begin.

Act #2: Acknowledgment

Acknowledging and asking for forgiveness as a leader can be humbling, particularly when as a leader you feel that your behavior toward others was in some way warranted (after all, they did violate your expectations in the first place). Similarly, when your persona as a leader is predicated on your certainty and decisiveness, one might worry that forgiveness will be perceived as weakness and will make your team doubt you or feel anxious. However, if you fail to demonstrate your awareness of the ways that you have transgressed another person, you’re protecting your ego at the expense of your team’s effectiveness. That’s poor leadership. So when you have identified a mistake, seek forgiveness and do not let your well-honed mechanisms of self protection convince you otherwise.

Act #3: Forgiveness

As challenging as asking for forgiveness can be, granting forgiveness can be infinitely harder. We often ascribe intent where it doesn’t belong, assume others lack empathy, and believe that letting go could open us up to further harm. But of course, it is the holding on that truly creates harm—both to our relationships, and to our own psyche. Do not allow your mind to be filled with resentments or to harbor bad feelings that could contaminate your other relationships. They absolutely will, as many small resentments inevitably translate into an angry demeanor with those for whom you care most.

The Forgiveness Frontier

Sometimes we recognize the humanity in others, and find the courage to seek and proffer forgiveness—challenging as it may be. We may chasten ourselves by recognizing the problems with our own behavior and work hard to correct them. And even in the course of doing that, we develop a new bad habit: negative self judgment. We develop the habit of evaluating our mistakes as a flaw in our character, and we are harsh with ourselves in ways that no other person would be.

There is no difference between harboring resentment about the transgressions of others and harboring resentment about our own mistakes. Possibly the hardest act of forgiveness is that of forgiving oneself. Authentically recognizing and reflecting on regret and identifying ways to be better are essential. But they must be followed by a willingness to let go of that regret and to give yourself the chance to be a better version of yourself without the shrouds of past behavior holding you down.

Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes

Now may or may not be a time when you naturally think about forgiveness, but you’re invited to make the jump nonetheless. Consider how much good it could do for your team—especially as you invest in critical relationships. If you do nothing else, take a few minutes to reflect on where your team relationships are most in need of repair. Could forgiveness help?